The food, drink and pills you take in through your mouth determine more than anything else how healthy your body is. Likewise the beliefs, expectations and responsibilities you take in through your relationships mostly determine the health of your heart, mind and soul.

Your happiness depends even more upon your soul diet than your physical diet, and the key to health is setting healthy boundaries. When problem situations occur, your boundaries are the promises you make to yourself and others.

For example, with a child in the home, a healthy boundary might look like this: “Whenever you throw a fit like that or say you hate one of us in this family, I will give you what your behavior says you need: I will put you into time-out for fifteen minutes, and I’ll repeat this for fifteen more minutes as often as you need until you sincerely apologize." (With teenagers, it helps more to put their electronic devices into time-out.) You teach a good lesson when you take away the privilege they are abusing.

With a spouse, healthy boundaries may sound like this: “The next time you buy something expensive like this that you don’t need without my approval, I’m going to get the money back for us by selling some thing things you don’t need without your approval.” Or, “If you ever cheat on me (or hit me) again, I will leave this house until you make a good start in counseling to straighten yourself out.”

To see where you need to set more appr90priate boundaries f9r y9urseof, consider any situation that keeps happening with another person or grouyp, and keeps making you upset or disappointed. . . . Here are some suggestions for setting healthy boundaries that will in the long run produce healthy relationships, personality and lifestyle.

  1. Draw a boundary for yourself whenever you sense a need to protect your physical or mental health, or the welfare of folks you care about. This would include when among other issues any of the following are threatened or damaged:
  1. Remind yourself and others that the purpose for setting your boundaries is to show that you respect and care about all the parties involved. Your boundaries should promote the welfare of all people affected by the situation at hand, so they help protect anyone from becoming exhausted, insulted, overindulged or overprotected.
  1. Make no promise you aren’t prepared to keep. No idle threats or promises—otherwise you’re showing you don’t respect yourself, and you inspire others to do the same. So if you say you’ll stop talking, you have to be willing to take the high road of silence, and get out of harm’s way, by letting the other person have the last nasty word.
  1. Avoid double standards. Don’t expect others to treat you any different than you treat them, or than you treat yourself. And don’t treat one child or parent with a very different tone, response, purpose or principle than you would use with another in the same situation. Boundaries don’t protect people when they consistently favor one person over the other (email me for an old column I wrote on double standards in marriage).
  1. Honor your promises, except when you can see a better way to fulfill the fair and beneficial purposes defined in 1. and 2. above. Be careful not to change your response just because someone gets their feelings hurt, or acts like they feel insulted. Your objectives don’t change, just your ways of reaching them.
  1. Healthy, effective boundaries dictate your behavior, not someone else’s. This most important rule for setting boundaries is also the most commonly broken. You can issue a command if you want, but it usually doesn’t help as much as it hurts.

For example, saying “You will not talk to me like that!” doesn’t work as well as, “If you talk to me like that again, I’ll stop talking with you for a good while, and stop trying so hard to make you happy.” Better still, go positive: “When you assure me you are sorry and won’t speak to me like that again, I will resume talking about what you want from me.” With teenagers and adults, making demands on them hurts you by inspiring them to rebel and prove the point, “You don’t control me.”

This last point is the biggest key to healthy boundaries: shifting your focus onto your own behaviors, and away from the other person's. You are now showing you can control your own behavior, not theirs. This ends the power struggles, and greatly reduces your frustration from focusing on what you can't change and were never designed to change – your loved one's behavior.

People setting new boundaries often find that they have more trouble than they expected to have when they try to honor their new promises. That is an indication that they need to get for themselves more guidance and support. It does not indicate a need to get more support for the loved one. So you may need to change your lifestyle--get yourself some counseling, or keep in closer touch with your supportive friends and family.

You can and should change the way you defend your boundaries when they get violated over and over again, and whenever people are consistently being disrespected. Also, when your behavior legitimately injures, insults or exhausts someone involved, including yourself, change the response you have promised to make.

Only change your boundary if you believe any healthy person in that situation would likely feel harmed or disrespected by your response, and when an objective observer would likely agree with your judgment. Remember that some injuries and hurt feelings are legitimate and unavoidable. When the other party has in effect asked for them, they actually need these hurt feelings, to teach and motivate them to make better decisions.

Finally, remember that your boundaries define who you are. They also determine how much you will take away the responsibility (and learning opportunity) from other people who are having problems. Don’t set boundaries that define you as a chump, a loser, a wimp, a bully or a fool, or as someone who is helping to create such a person. Be a winner whose boundaries show others that you respect and care about them, and about yourself.






PARENT: My son wants to move back home, with his tail between his legs. This is the second time he’s lost his job and his girlfriend under the same circumstance: saying he wants to get away from his friends who are pot-heads, again, and to come home awhile and “figure things out.”   I’m embarrassed to tell you how old he is.

             Situations like this require sacrifice on the parents’ part for plans to work out for the Adult Child (the “AC”). As a result of helping out, parents would be actively contributing to (“enabling”) any ongoing bad habits or relationships the adult child (AC) wants to keep pursuing. It is the same dilemma when the AC is already living at home, and wants his parents to give financial support to his current lifestyle or future plans.

Too often, it looks like you have a choice between two awful alternatives. On the one hand, you can say no to your child’s dreams or wishes. The risk is that the AC will go off on some wild self-destructive protest binge, or get used or misled by somebody, and then blame you. And the hooker is you might believe her troubles would be your fault.

Out of fear, the other alternative is usually chosen. You may keep providing, preaching, and swallowing your anger at everyone’s passivity, the AC’s and your own. The risks here are more subtle and long-term. You are likely to get exhausted, emotionally and financially. And maritally, you’d allow a wedge to come between you: the soft parent would be set against the tough one, and you’d be losing privacy as well. The whole deal would be like having a big dog start sleeping between you in the bed.

And the big loser is the dog, uh, the adult child. You would basically be insulting your AC in saying by your actions that they can’t make it on their own. By funding their lifestyle, you’d also be pouring fuel (your money, your home, your companionship, and your services) on the fires of their bad habits and relationships.

THERE IS ALWAYS A THIRD WAY. Tell them they can fill out an application for your support, and you’ll consider it. You make out the application, print it out, and they fill it out. This beats the old question-and-answer game. You put blanks after each italicized item for them to fill in the blanks. They can read this article and take it to others for help in deciding how to fill out each item. But they can’t move back in until the application has become a signed contract. Here are six items to put into a contract:

           Goalsspecific goals for their own behavior. Then for each goal,

Steps required – each action the AC needs to take. The AC says how and where they will look for a job, lover or roommate, and what would be the major qualifications and disqualifications for one to be chosen. Time frames are good, like how many hours per week they will look. You may ask what evidence they’d give to document their looking.

External threatspeople, circumstances, developments that would threaten the goals. You can include this question: “How would you ever know if (friends, lovers) were doing more harm than good for your goals? They need to be put to a test.”

Internal threatswhat habits, choices and attitudes of the AC would undermine each goal? How will the AC avoid these?

Internal assetsskills, knowledge, qualities, resumes, job and character references required, and how these will be obtained.

Budget of expenses check to see if each item has been verified. If these are in error, the AC forfeits the right to ask for more money from you later if it becomes needed. I recommend charging rent for a developmentally delayed adult child who stays at home. It can be adjusted depending on attitude and chores done. Save the rent to give to the child upon their successful graduation from home. It is best to spread this financial support out over time, and it may include matching funds from parents to speed up the exit.

One key is offering no help – no financial, logistical, or emotional support, no roof over the head – until the application is completed and reviewed. Whatever help they need filling it out, they need to get it themselves so they can feel ownership of their plan. Your feedback (maybe a counterproposal) only comes after all parents, step-parents and grandparents involved have spoken, and the custodial parents have reached consensus on how to respond. (Before you commit any further, you might need testing, counseling or medication to be provided to the AC, and to see the AC’s compliance.)

Finally treat the final agreement as terms of a contract. It will need signatures, witnesses, and a copy for both parties. This goes a long way to inspiring the right attitude in all parties concerned, and it teaches that contracts are binding.

One more key: don’t let the adult child see you sweat when they complain. Here is a good line to practice and use: “Well, apparently you don’t want it enough to fill out the application.” This keeps all the pressure where it belongs, on the adult child to grow up.



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Dr. Paul F. Schmidt